Image by Owen Luterbach
By Jay Sanchez
Images by Anna Warner & Owen Luterbach
January 26, 2024
Jay: We finally did it Germán; I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite some time now. Thank you for making the time to meet me at Shooters Lounge.
Germán: Thank you Jay, super pumped to be here today. This bar looks like a really good time. Very impressed by your professional set up, thank you for your time man.
Jay: An absolute pleasure Germán. Let me be the first to congratulate you on your latest body work “A Dimly Lit Path”… A superlative body of work truly standing out for the hardcore aficionado. Give us the backstory, inspiration, and process of this delicate yet boldly elongated beautiful imagery.
Germán: I’ll start from the beginning with the main thematic influences of the show. Reading about Joseph Campbell and his writings on comparative mythology got things started. The idea that we all follow these different narratives through our lives, that are not predetermined, but that follow similar patterns interested me. I wanted to explore that idea through my work, to sink my teeth into it not only from a contemporary visual perspective but also to reframe ancient images that represented this idea. Guided by Campbell’s writings, I started doing more research on mythology worldwide. Six months ago, I started painting the first piece for the show which also happens to be the biggest. The Minotaur’s Maze is approximately 7 feet wide by 6 feet tall, and it portrays the moment when Theseus meets the monster in the Labyrinth of King Midas.
Image by Anna Warner
Jay: A mesmerizing piece indeed brother. How does this body of work flourish? How does your first solo show come to be at Rock Wall Gallery?
Germán: Thank you. Working on that piece led to other ideas coming up that I just kept shooting down, they felt too separate, thematically and visually, to make sense together. This must have been in April of 2023. A few months passed, and after having a conversation about a show with Ryan Rado, the curator at Rock Wall Gallery, we agreed on having the opening of the show in December of 2023. With a clearer deadline in mind, I started preparing for the show within a framework connecting Campbell’s idea of the narrative archetypes with the concept of a journey through a labyrinth. To me, the labyrinth is an analogy for the human mind. The idea of a difficult and often unknown journey through a complex physical structure reflects the internal dilemmas and “problems” which make up our lives. Each painting is a vignette, representing a chamber within this labyrinth that we’re all traversing.
Jay: What other research are you doing? What else are you tapping into?
Germán: There were a lot of things on my mind when I was beginning to plan for the show. Social media and our relationship to it. The immigrant experience, I’m originally from Mexico City. Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian, and Mayan mythology play a major role in this body of work. Jungian philosophy and psychoanalysis. It felt like all of these topics were pieces of a puzzle, suspended in space. I needed to find a way to join them. The wide canon of mythology, the tropes around the contemporary narrative of the hero, and our place as the heroes of our own stories started to come together, joined by the other topics I previously mentioned.
Jay: Take us to opening night. Give the reader a small window to your emotions on that night.
Germán: The opening night was amazing. In the days leading up to it I was sleeping at my studio, painting pretty much around the clock, taking naps here and there when I was too tired to continue. I was working on the paintings up until about maybe an hour before the show started. We had hung the pieces and I was still adding details, which I think kept my mind away from the idea of the opening. I was really excited and nervous at the same time. The thought that nobody would show up crossed my mind. I was really surprised by the size of the crowd that came out. There were lots of people I did not know, which allowed me to remain kind of anonymous and to hear what people said about the work. My goal of the show was for the audience to find reflections of themselves in the paintings, to realize that they are the heroes of their narratives. That the direction of their path is within their control. I had some great conversations that night about the show evoking that feeling in a few viewers, or about how a piece had reminded someone of their personal journey. That was special. In the end, I think everyone could relate to the different iterations of the same story; we’re born, we live, we come to moments of hardship, defeat, struggle, hopefully success – and then we die. And that’s our joint narrative. That’s our path.
Image by Anna Warner
Jay: Your attention to detail and hard work does not go unnoticed by experiencing the final product. Tell me about your two favorite pieces in “A Dimly Lit Path”
Germán: Tough question Jay. I think all the paintings have a part of me in them. I do have a special attachment to The Minotaur’s Maze because it was the “seed” that sprouted the entire idea for the show. I feel like my journey over the last few years is especially similar to that of the figure in that piece, and that of Theseus in the original story. Aside from a more personal connection like that, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the Narcissus painting. This piece explores the myth of a boy who falls in love with his reflection in a pool of water, in which he then drowns. I wanted to repurpose this story, as I think the overarching subtext of the original myth and the things and qualities our society values are growing more and more similar. Technology is driving us to similar fates as Narcissus, but instead of drowning in water, our phones are the endless pools in which we are seeing and seeking reflections of ourselves. These “reflections” are the ghosts in the machine, algorithms, or maybe just validation and the dopamine hits from likes and notifications. Other themes in that painting are the notions of anonymity and mass surveillance. Anyway, the silhouette of a phone in the painting is actually a pool of water in which the figure in the painting is losing herself. I think this is a pervasive issue in our world now. Everything has the possibility of being performative.
Jay: You mentioned people not knowing you, you mentioned being from Mexico City. Tell us more about that time.
Germán: Mexico City is a beautiful but very chaotic place, home to about 23 million people. As a kid you can’t really go out and explore that, but you’re still surrounded by all the things that make up this enormous metropolis that’s 500 years old. Older than that if you consider the time before the Spanish arrived. Growing up there I felt surrounded by a lot of creativity, there was an understated sense of pride and intentionality to almost everything I saw and, culturally, there was a lot of emphasis on the arts. The history, the colors, the architecture, everything felt incredibly vibrant to me, especially in retrospect after moving to the United States. As a young kid I was surrounded by a lot of very educated, very creative and very accomplished people. I was reading a lot, and so I think all of this led to me synthesizing culture in a way that was very unique.
Jay: Are you discovering your creative energy at this time?
Germán: Mexico City and my upbringing were definitely the first ingredients in the pot, but the idea of making art first began developing after we moved to the United States. My family moved here because my father was an entrepreneur. My father’s business partners worked for a large financial company based in Nashville. We were following the typical American dream journey of immigrants coming to America seeking a better life.
Jay: That’s a complete 360 to the life you were living in Mexico.
Germán: Yeah, it was a complicated time. We were trying very hard to become Americans and become a part of the great American experiment, or at least I was, but the harder I tried, the more isolated I became in many ways. Things like the language barrier made things difficult at first. Even small things like humor were difficult. The humor I was used to is pretty dry and sarcastic, and that seemed to be incomprehensible to those around me. As a young person, I also consumed a lot of American media, which reinforces negative stereotypes whether it be about hispanics or any other racial group. I think, post-2001, there was a time where the media was rabidly pushing xenophobia. Anyway, it got to the point where I was ashamed of being a foreigner. This is also something that I think shows up in my work. The idea of being a part of something else than the accepted majority, of belonging to what is perceived to be a lower cultural caste strata, of being part of the “other”. During this time, I was beginning to take art classes and to really become interested in learning how to draw and paint within an academic context. KJ Schumacher, one of my art teachers at MBA, was probably one of my biggest influences. He was one of the first real artists I got to spend time around and seeing how he viewed the world and seeing how his life reflected parts of his art practice really resonated with me. My friends at this time also pushed me creatively, I owe them everything.
Image by Anna Warner
Jay: What inspires you? What other creatives have inspired you during your journey?
Germán: Almost everything inspires me. Classical and ancient narratives, as reflected in “A Dimly Lit Path.” The idea that artists are conduits of energy has a lot of room in my mind. The work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Wanting to add to the social commentary of the times through which we are living, whether that commentary is good or bad, is important to me. The desire to connect with and reflect the viewer is also something that’s important in my approach to making work. That critical mentality has been molded by a lot of different artists whom I deeply admire, painters like Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez, or the Northern Dutch Renaissance masters, who were subversive in their own ways. We’re in an era of art where figurative painting is important because it demonstrates not only technical ability but also the desire to say something about the world outside of oneself, much like Goya and Bosch did through their own work. I’m not an abstract painter who “paints feelings.” To me, right now that feels culturally overplayed. Almost like a meme. Growing up in Mexico City I was surrounded by a lot of figurative artwork, and I’m not just talking about Frida Kahlo; I’m also referring to Diego Rivera, Orozco, Saturnino Herran. These artists were all social commentators, and I hope to carry on that tradition.
Jay: “Bro you’re so fucken worldly! Orozco and Herran are names I haven’t heard in a long time.” Staying on that train of thought, why is painting, and creating important to you?
Germán: I’m trying to think of a way to eloquently answer that for you. Again, I grew up seeing a lot of art and spent a lot of time around people who expressed the value and beauty of art. My parent’s friends, family members, etc. I remember my grandparents on both sides of my family had very unique artwork, and I remember just being mystified by a lot of those pieces. I grew up feeling that art had value, and that the role of the artist in a society was important. I have always felt a push to create things that made me feel the wonder the pieces in those collections made me feel back then. I always felt a curiosity to create something that was beautiful or interesting, and I wanted to add my own commentary on our times. I think I’m getting there now, with my paintings. Most importantly, I have a lot of fun doing it.
Jay: Where did you go to College?
Germán: I went to Sewanee, the University of the South…
Jay: Tell us more about your time there.
Germán: It’s a beautiful place and I got to spend a lot of time outdoors. I’m thankful for my education, but college was a dark time for me. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents by following a career in the arts. Instead, I studied something practical, business and economics. I completely abandoned my creative practice for almost five years, but I thought about it constantly.This was a very challenging time and I felt like I was playing a part that had been given to me, as opposed to having it be my own choice. Image by Anna Warner
Jay: So you didn’t create at all during your time in college?
Germán: Not at all, which was a complete turn around from what I had decided that I wanted to pursue during high school. As a junior I had won a grant to go study painting and art history in Florence, and got the opportunity to explore Italy. I had taken advanced placement art history and art courses. I thought I was going to study art, and was fully invested in spending my life as a creative. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but that all took a backseat once I graduated from MBA. Doubt and uncertainty overtook a large part of me, and I abandoned my practice. I bought into the idea that I needed to take a more conventional approach to my life, and that since I wasn’t getting an art degree, this lack of credentials had eliminated me from becoming a “real” artist. I didn’t really come back to making art until the breakout of COVID-19.
Jay: I can relate to that feeling of disappointment coming from our parents. Take us to that moment when you bounce back to your creative space.
Germán: After college I moved back to Nashville. I moved in with a friend from high school and landed a job in tech. I remember beginning to accumulate painting supplies and setting up a small corner studio in our dining room, encouraged by my roommate. I wasn’t taking it very seriously until the pandemic, when it felt like the world was ending. At that time I started to think to myself “Why not try?” and I started to really work on my practice. Thinking about that dining room makes me think of all the different spaces I’ve created in since then, about a lot of good memories. Anyway – I met Rich Modica, who runs ModFellows Art Gallery, at a show at the now defunct social sometimes, where I had some work in a group show not long after COVID restrictions had lifted. He visited my studio and was kind enough to give me my first shot at displaying my work in a professional setting.
Jay: What were your thoughts on the art community during those early days?
Germán: The scene had gone into a cryogenic sleep during the pandemic. Once things started opening up, I started going to art crawls and openings, and meeting other creatives around Nashville. Things were really quiet in general, not a lot going on. I don’t think the community was aware of itself during those days. I myself had no idea there were so many other creatives around until pretty recently. I’ve noticed things trending upward since 2021. I’m excited to be a part of the scene now and to see where this creative community is headed.
Jay: I’m honored to be sitting with someone who I see taking this community to uncharted territory in the near future.
Germán: Thanks Jay, likewise.
Jay: What else is Germán doing around the city?
Germán: I do freelance software engineering and a bit of graphic design. I’ve started doing my own mural projects, and just dabbling with anything creative I can get my hands on. I’m a sitting member of the Board for Number Inc. Magazine and I’m currently working on building a new website for the publication. I also do art handling for the Frist Art Museum.
Jay: You’re everywhere my dude, I love that! Let me take this conversation full circle; You mentioned that at one time in your life you were ashamed to be from Mexico City. Does Germán Rojas still find shame in that?
Germán: Not at all man, I’m very proud of my heritage today.
Jay: I am exuberant to hear those words come out of your soul. It truly saddens me to hear when someone finds shame in their heritage or culture. As a Latino, I’m fucking proud of my culture. I find pride in being in the trenches with creatives representing for Latinos, Latinas, Latinx, and all mi gente around. “Our ancestors were Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas; we come from royalty homie! I could never allow anything or anyone to diminish or shut down those superpowers.”
Germán: That’s powerful Jay. I’m proud to represent my community with my work today. I look forward to exploring my cultural heritage further in the future.
Jay: Germán Rojas is (fill in the blank)?
Germán: He’s a combination of a lot of things. I’m mostly very curious which I think is reflected in my more scholarly approach to researching for and making my work. I always want to know and understand more about the mediums with which I work, and the world around me.
Jay: What’s next for Germán Rojas?
Germán: I want to explore new boundaries in my work, I’m currently working on paintings for a few up-coming group shows. I also want to see the art scenes in different cities. Art enriches people and the communities they live in; I want to be in places where people place a higher value on art. I think Nashville is getting there, but we’re severely lacking in a lot of ways. I’ll be in Los Angeles during the month of March, so I’m looking forward to experiencing that art scene and exploring California. That’s almost everything on the agenda.
Instagram – @germanmrojas
Website – https://germanrojas.art/